Anatomy of a Court Martial
"Sergeant Rutledge" is an interesting movie because it is slightly different to what you expect from a John Ford western. What makes it slightly different is that it takes the form of a courtroom drama, a court martial of a black soldier accused of murder and rape. But this is not the intelligent courtroom drama of say "Anatomy of a Murder", instead the courtroom and the witnesses which take the stand are there to retell the story via a series of flashbacks which are more typical John Ford territory with a series of western scenes. There is still a touch of ingenuity about it as the story pieces together and clues reveal themselves as to whether or not the soldier is guilty but sadly "Sergeant Rutledge" falls to pieces when it comes to the big finale, the courtroom summations which in an attempt to be clever throw one twist too many at us and becomes overly contrived.
Sgt. Braxton Rutledge (Woody Strode - The Quick and the Dead) is the top soldier in his unit that is until a Major and his daughter are murdered and Rutledge is accused. Facing a court martial Lt. Tom Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter - The True Story of Jesse James) defends Rutledge and as each witness takes to the stand we the story unfurls as to why Rutledge fled the garrison and was found at a train station with Mary Beecher (Constance Towers - A Perfect Murder).
So as already mentioned "Sergeant Rutledge" takes the form of a courtroom drama as Lt. Tom Cantrell tries to prove that 1st Sgt. Braxton Rutledge is not guilty of murder and rape. It initially feels that the courtroom setting is there for little more than to allow Ford to serve up some typical humour as we have the flustered Col. Otis Fosgate presiding over the court martial and there are a room full of civilians who are looking at the case of some form of entertainment including Fosgate's own slightly dotty wife. But in the end the actual courtroom setting ends up being a vehicle to tell the story through a series of witness statements as they take the stand and to be honest the switch between a witness on the stand and the flashback is one of the worst transitions I have seen.
It is the actual flashbacks where "Sergeant Rutledge" comes good as they start of being presented out of sequence as we learn about Mary Beecher and her first encounter with Sgt. Rutledge where he protects her from Indians. This is then followed by another witness, Mrs. Fosgate, recounting an earlier event where the flashback takes us back to Sgt. Rutledge helping the young Lucy Dabner and slowly all these flashbacks piece together the entire story each containing at least one very important moment which may prove Rutledge to be innocent.
Now these clues to Rutledge's innocence are a mixed bunch some clever some seriously unsubtle such as the minute we witness a young man called Chris Hubble looking menacing when Rutledge helps Lucy it is plainly obvious that he is jealous and will be pivotal to the court case. But despite this, the series of events which sees Sgt. Rutledge go on the run in fear of being wrongly accused to being a hero and saving lives is entertaining especially with their constantly lurking the fact that Rutledge was once a slave and never wants to be shackled again.
Sadly whilst the flashbacks link to make a reasonably clever storyline they do expectedly end up back in the courtroom as both the defence and prosecution provide what I am sure are meant to be powerful summations but in reality are quite weak. But that is not the issue, the issue comes from one final twist as Lt. Cantrell makes his case for Rutledge's innocence and it makes almost everything which went before one big red herring. And to add to the misery the final scene is cheesy in fact it is beyond cheesy and wrong on so many levels.
As for the acting well is is a case that it is solid but also forgettable or at least from the majority of the cast which includes Jeffrey Hunter and Constance Towers. But it is Woody Strode as Sgt. Braxton Rutledge who makes the biggest impact and his imposing muscular, broad shouldered figure fills the screen. He may barely say a word in the courtroom but during the flashbacks he creates this upright character, a decent man but one with a darkness and a fear of being wrongly accused due to the colour of his skin.
What this all boils down to is that "Sergeant Rutledge" is unsurprisingly a good movie but one which isn't really a courtroom drama as that is just the vehicle for a series of flashbacks and western action. But the way the story pieces together works well keeping you interested as another clue comes to light, it's just a shame that when it comes to the big climax it throws in one twist too many and in many ways makes much of what went before pointless.